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Hardware Review: 3Dfx Takes Games to a New Dimension -- Blood has never looked this good



By Mark Huang
Staff Reporter

Lara Croft has big breasts. I didn't properly register this fact, though, until I played the enhanced version of Tomb Raider. Without a 3Dfx card, the two rendered triangles on Lara's chest resemble outgrowths more than breasts. With an Orchid Righteous 3D, however, it's quite clear that Lara's a product of Silicon Valley in more ways than one.

Of course, I didn't buy my Righteous 3D card just to engage in some sort of sick voyeurism with rendered polygons. I bought it because its guts, the 3Dfx Voodoo chip, is fast becoming the standard for 3D gaming. Of the 3D cards that have consistently gained positive reviews, over half are 3Dfx-based. Of the 3D games that have been patched for hardware support or are currently being developed, virtually all provide acceleration for 3Dfx. Most important to their success, however, is the fact that 3Dfx-based boards are pass-through: they work with existing 2D video cards (and even other 3D cards) through a simple cable. This feature both ensures compatibility and prices 3Dfx boards at around $150, at least twice as cheap as comparable 2D/3D combo cards like the Matrox Mystique or the S3 ViRGE.

The two most popular 3Dfx boards are the Diamond Monster 3D and the Orchid Righteous 3D, both virtually identical in performance. The Righteous 3D is bundled with fewer games and uses slightly slower DRAM, but can be picked up for under $100 (compared to the Monster's $150-$200 tag) at outlets like Onsale (http://www.onsale.com/). If you don't have a video card at all or need a new one, 3Dfx's Voodoo Rush is also available. Boards based on the Rush design are 2D/3D combo cards, providing adequate to fast 2D support and fast 3D acceleration identical to the Voodoo's. The Hercules Stingray 128 3D/TV and Intergraph Intense 3D Voodoo are both Voodoo Rush-based, but can be quite expensive (over $200).

Once you have a 3Dfx card, installation is trivial. It's finding time to play the close to thirty titles that have been accelerated for 3Dfx that's hard. A few of the current games that provide patches for 3Dfx are Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries, X-Wing vs. Tie-Fighter, Carmageddon, Shadows of the Empire, and, of course, GLQuake and Hexen II (which only support the 3Dfx). Upcoming titles such as Quake II, FIFA (Soccer) 98, Falcon 4.0, and Jedi Knight don't list a 3D card as a requirement, but "strongly recommended" (not in the Coop sense) would be my take.

Despite being one of the first games to provide acceleration, GLQuake is still the best example of what 3Dfx can do for a game (its frame rate was the accepted benchmark until 3D WinBench 97 solidified into recognizable form this month). It's the game that I show people when they want to see what my card can do, and it's the game that leaves them shocked when they realize that blood's never looked this good. With an Orchid Righteous 3D card, GLQuake runs at a smooth 30 frames per second in 640x480x16bpp mode, a faster rate than in normal 320x200x8bpp on some older Pentiums. It's theoretically capable of achieving 1024x768x16bpp but no affordable card on the market has enough memory yet to reach this resolution. Nevertheless, the improvements over standard video modes are quite noticeable. Besides the obvious increase in resolution and frame rate, texture maps and polygon counts are both greatly improved in GLQuake. Lighting from explosions and flickering lamps show up as more than dim yellow flashes, and objects only look better as you get closer to them.

Improvements in other accelerated games run along similar veins: textures, blending, lighting, and buffering are all improved with 3Dfx. No screen shot could do justice to these games, so a short chart of some 3Dfx resources is provided with this article instead. Before you buy, however, some caveats are in order. You don't want to use a 3Dfx card for heavy-duty CAD work or applications that require strict compliance with OpenGL: 3Dfx is for entertainment purposes only. In addition, there are a multitude of cheaper (Rendition, ViRGE) and faster (Viper, Realizm) 3D cards out there. If you want the most power for your dollar, however, and only intend to use your 3D accelerator for games, then the 3Dfx is definitely the way to go.

Next week: Ultima Online

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